A New Chapter

It has taken me nearly a year to figure out my writer’s block… for lack of a better term. I have remained committed to writing privately but writing freely in blog form has taken the backseat. I have 40 draft blogs I’ve written in the past two years. All of which were started and promptly left to sit in the digital closet.

After some soul searching I have come to realize this blog, We Built a Camper, feels like a giant metaphor for a much larger life lesson I have been slogging through for the past two years: searching for the boundary between my individual life and my life as a wife.

I often describe it to my clients as “me, we, family.” All of us have these overlapping identities, each with their own responsibilities make up life.  However, our culture typically conditions women to be more “family and we” as the “me” portion slowly gets chipped away at by the other two priorities.

As women, we are taught that we can be anything we want to be, that women have been liberated. But in actuality, we are just conditioned to do more. Have a career, have children, be a sweet wife, while also being assertive, maintain relationships, don’t make sacrifices but each of these identities requires sacrifice. From my work as a therapist, I know that I am not alone in feeling like the sacrifice that gets made is myself. Not in the martyr, look how great I am way. Rather in the slow, almost imperceivable silencing of my heart, choosing career or being a wife and feeling all these roles are somehow competing with each other.

In an effort to take a bold leap toward a larger “me” in the context of my career and relationships, I am moving my writing to JoellaLong.com. A new website devoted to my solo work as a writer, therapist, and lover of adventure.

Follow along if you’d like: joellalong.com

When the past dream no longer fits…

Last Thursday life came into a new focus. In fact, it was such a profound perspective shift, it felt like waking up in someone else’s life. It seemed every decision, every fork in the road over the past three years was in front of me.

And suddenly, that potential I referred to in the last blog was clear.

I love skiing, trail running, and living in sunny Bend… but not as much as I love the field of Marriage and Family Therapy. It hit me like a freight train. All in one moment:

Not only do I love my career, I get to share it with the love of my life who also loves it.

That is my one thing, being a therapist with my hubby. That is what my life is about. And hiding from my potential has taken the form of attempting to arrange my life around other things I love.

Bend is an incredible place if you are an amateur or professional athlete and your life is about your sport. It is also an incredible place if you work remotely so you get paid a big city paycheck and live in a small town. It is also an incredible place if you don’t really like your job and want to drink beer or play outside with all your free time.

I have come to realize I was in the latter category when we first decided to move here. The Army and working throughout my education left Michael and I totally burnt out. We literally just wanted to work enough to pay the bills, run outside, and ski.

However, Bend has become like an incubator for us. We have developed ideas, methods, and have more to offer than ever. And our dream has expanded past just working to pay the bills. We have a clear vision and goals to match.

Change is on the horizon…..

Love and Admiration

The room was dark but I lay in bed next to Michael feeling wide awake. It felt good to be in the dark not facing all that was around us. We were in one bedroom of a 100+ year old historical home in Asheville North Carolina with no cell phone reception and a mountain of emotion.

Four days prior Michael’s dad had passed away. It set off a chain of events, many of which feel like a blur. Buying plane tickets, coordinating time off work, dog care, ride to the airport, notifying friends and canceling our plans for the next ten days. We took solace in knowing exactly what Michael’s dad, Charlie, wanted. We were so grateful to not have to guess his wishes or where to start.

Upon arriving in Asheville (6 and a half hours late… thank you, Delta) we got to work planning and coordinating the funeral. As with most of our Asheville trips it felt as though we were in quick sand. As one task was completed eight more popped up in its place.

Tensions were high that week between Michael’s siblings. Already defensive about the need to sell the family home, Charlie’s death seemed to be the proverbial straw. After finding out that two of Michael’s three siblings would not be attending the funeral, we both laid awake in a flood of emotion. We both wondered for a moment about why on earth we were here… again…. being kept awake by a flood of stress and a chorus of insects.

And then Michael began to share, “It’s not really about my family. It’s about developing character. Carrying out this funeral, burying my father on that hillside in Hayesville, being grateful for the man he was and letting go of all that he wasn’t, is important to me.” In that moment, everything became so clear. As hard as this all was and has been, it was so much easier being reminded that all of this was for my incredible husband. I wasn’t there for all of these messy family relationships or to fix anything from the past. I was there to love, admire, and support my husband… which is pretty much my favorite thing to do.

Life is fucking hard. It is full of some of the most grueling experiences and torturous emotions.

And that is why relationships are so important. Relationships with loved ones and with ourselves. If your relationships aren’t strong, if you aren’t spending time with people you love and admire, fix it. If your self talk sounds like an abusive partner, change it.

Because when life decides to hit you, you need love and admiration. For yourself and those around you. It is the glue and healing salve to our humanity.

David, Charlie, and Michael

Boo-hoo “I don’t know what my future holds!”

It was spring of 2007. I found myself in the most interesting class about city development and architecture…. though I have no idea how that applied to my major. Class was about to begin when a student burst into the door plopped into a seat while juggling loose books and a cup of coffee. The professor laughed at the sight of the disheveled and clearly overloaded student’s entrance. He attempted a quiet “everything ok?” though the room could hear him. The student responded, “yeah, I am just attempting to get a new job and I am thinking about changing my major… life is just messy right now.” Both the student and the professor shared a laugh and it seemed the professor took that as permission. He started by saying, “my wife just had our second child, I am applying for tenure soon, and I have a mortgage that comes every month. So many of you in this room think to yourselves “boo-hoo, I don’t know what my future holds! It’s so unknown and scary!” Just wait!,” he continued “one day you will wake up in your thirties with some non-negotiable certainties in your life and you will wish you had options. You will dream of unknowns!”

I must have really taken that moment to heart. Not only can I remember it like it was yesterday, but I seem to have dodged a lot of certainty in life. No debt. No mortgage. Hardly a steady career. And even though I absolutely love living in Bend, I find my mind wandering to other places I would like to live on a regular basis. The only known is my incredible partner in life, Michael.

It’s  been a decade since I received that advice and guess what? It still thrills me to have no idea how things are coming together! I still feel like my future is an unwritten page ready for me to create the next phase, phrase or prose.

Lately it has felt particularly blank. After 18 months of hammering away at the private practice I felt I needed a change. Not only does it seem life may take an unforeseeable turn (more on that later) but I would like to just make some steady money and have a more full client load. The private practice is still slowly growing and continues to get more streamlined but I would like to work with more people. So I followed that feeling and an opportunity came up to do some contract work for another private practice.

Long story short, I find myself in one of those awkward times in life where I have an abnormal amount of time on my hands. 

… And a PhD calling my name…


Daring to Dream a New Dream

I used to think that dreams were the all encompassing guide to the arch of a lifetime. That one dream sustained a person. But I have found myself on a journey much larger than myself. I laugh when I reflect on how I thought the Camino de Santiago was the journey. It is funny that consumer America conditioned me to believe that personal transformation could be an extended vacation. Or that journeys have a beginning and end date. Perhaps it was the writer in me that wanted a beautiful beginning, middle and end. The setup, conflict and resolution.

Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip.
— Robert J. Hastings

I used to think that dreams were just a vision of the future. Kind of like a goal only so big it was hard to see the full picture. But I have come to see that in order to dream you often have to say painful goodbyes. To dream we have to let go of expectations, failures, and familiar ways of being. Dreaming is equal parts building the new and letting go of the old.

Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

After attending the American Family Therapy Academy conference I found myself in this place. A place where perhaps the dream that lead me this far no longer fits or at least needs modification. It has been my intent to build a private practice that provides the community with such a valuable service that it would draw people in. I could become a supervisor and educate consumers and  other therapists about the power of a systemic perspective. Most of all, I am on a mission to empower people to take control of their mental health by asking questions and finding a therapist based on fit and excellence… not just because insurance pays for it.

As I have pursued self funded research and began to build this practice I have realized… I don’t find the same passion and fire working with people one on one week after week. I LOVE to change people’s lives. And I LOVE challenging myself to do my absolute best work. However, if I were to have a full practice and making a comfortable income, how would I be impacting the field of marriage and family therapy? How would I have time to write, connect with academic faculty, collaborate, and paint the vision I have for the field? How could I inspire the next generation of therapists who are coming into a broken and fading mental health system?

It was my dream to show up at the AFTA conference and blow people away with two master’s level therapists caring so deeply about the field that they still pursue research and excellence. I believed this would challenge academic faculty that I felt often spits out crappy studies to secure paychecks. It would be a “what now?!?” to a field directed by much older semi-retired therapists who have endured so much change they have struggled to adapt to the world we live in today.

But instead, I got the challenge! Here were all of these incredible people making steady income, pursuing their passions, and having amazing conversations about how to better the field in ways that had not even occurred to me. I felt so silly. I had lumped academia into the wrong category. And those assumptions were not based on ignorance, I have been to other conferences, and I have seen what my field continues to lobby for in politics.  But AFTA was amazing!!!

Another factor that always held Michael and I back is that we both really want to pursue PhDs. I mean, if we are going to move and live the college life, we might as well. However, paying cash for two masters degrees over 5 years was a lot of work. Looking at the numbers for two PhDs in only 3 years made us both faint!

It turns out the PhD level of our field is different though. It is so small that there are more assistantship and scholarship opportunities than we could have ever imagined.

So suddenly we have found ourselves looking at the very real possibility of moving away from Bend (hopefully only for a couple years!) to pursue a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. This would catapult us both into supervisor, professor, and research positions that were going to take years to create for ourselves. Not only that but we would also be better able to discuss research and critique research, a skill we didn’t realize we were lacking until the AFTA conference.

I am totally laughing as I am writing this because, between you and me, I thought that going to the AFTA conference would make Michael see things my way. I have been telling him that we can create all the opportunity we want in our private practice and that, “we don’t need to pay some old white dude to give us another credential” (unfortunately my exact words)…. haha marriage is hilarious! I wish I had a dollar for every time I was wrong! I am so lucky to have such an amazing and patient husband.

I have found myself dizzy for the past few weeks trying to take in all this new information and digest the experience. It has also left me reconceptualizing Cascadia Family Therapy. It may not close… but it is going to take some creativity to recalibrate and organize life around a potential two year hiatus.

The journey continues….

The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but significance – and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning. – Oprah Winfrey

“Yeah… but you will have cheap wine!”

Over the weekend I went into a local grocery store to buy tickets for the UB40 concert next week. While I was purchasing the tickets a customer over heard and asked, “are you going to sneak in red wine?” I laughed and replied, “isn’t that mandatory?” thinking that would be the end of that discussion. But the customer continued, “want me to tell you how to do it?” By now I had figured out I wasn’t just conversing with any stranger at the grocery store… this guy had seen some shit. And by the looks of him he had also snuck a wide variety of illegal contraband into many venues and possibly countries for that matter. I answered, “please do, I don’t have much experience sneaking wine into concerts.” He began describing, “well, you go to the thrift store on the other side of 3rd, buy an arm sling, and then wear the arm sling into the concert. The bottle fits perfectly above your arm… and who is going to check an arm sling?!” he said with so much conviction, it seemed he had outdone himself once again.

I relayed this story to my husband who was patiently waiting for me outside. We both laughed at the creativity and how he embodied the rebellious essence that makes Oregon so rad.

It wasn’t until days after this encounter that it occurred to me just how much work wearing an arm at an outdoor concert in 95 degree weather would be. Any injury requiring an arm sling would be a huge pain in the ass. And how long would you have to wear it? I suppose one could just wear it through the security line, hide or empty the bottle of wine and then take the sling off. But in a small venue, that sounds challenging. So would you have to wear it for the whole concert?

After pondering the lengths to which someone would go for cheap wine I started to ask myself, what do I work too hard at? What are the areas of my life where the output of energy greatly outweighs the perceived benefits? Or more importantly, what perceived benefits am I so attached to that I don’t even question the work that I put in? Because that is what it comes down to. A large portion of affordable Wine (or God knows for that guy!) is so important, that he probably doesn’t even think about the benefit of not wearing an arm sling. Whereas for me, since I don’t really care about wine, why bother?

Perhaps it is how blinded by passion I am about not diagnosing clients with mental disorders that I sacrifice a full private practice and steady income. Or maybe it is the huge box of art supplies I have moved across the country twice but rarely use. Or maybe it is how I continue to think if I just schedule my day better I could accomplish so much more… which seems to leave me more tired than accomplished. Or maybe it is how I continue to declare “I don’t need some white dude to give me a piece of paper that says PhD to do what I believe in” even though pursuing a PhD could be a more effective way forward….

It feels like I have many perceived benefits that keep me really busy being stuck lately.